When Politics Fail

The ABC’s international service has earned an enviable reputation as a regional media influencer, especially in the Pacific. But in the last seven years, it has been under-supported by the federal government, while money has been allocated to commercial interests for questionable benefit. With growing geopolitical tensions, the national broadcaster’s role as the ‘voice of Australia’ has never been more important. In this three-part series we examine ABC International’s ‘soft power’ contribution to national security and why the federal government must substantially increase both its policy and financial commitments to the ABC’s international service. Helen Grasswill begins, with an overview.


The folly of Australia’s international media strategy

By Helen Grasswill / 13 September 2021

The ABC is under such constant pressure and threats from government (as well as relentless attacks from hostile media and other organisations such as the IPA), it’s not surprising that public attention is almost exclusively on the domestic service. 

But legislation requires the national broadcaster to also fulfil an international role. The ABC Charter – enshrined in section 6 of the ABC Act – outlines responsibilities to provide broadcast and digital services in the areas of news, current affairs, entertainment and cultural enrichment to other countries in order to increase awareness and understanding of Australia and Australian attitudes on world affairs, and to enable Australians living or travelling overseas to remain abreast of Australian affairs.

An enlightened ABC long ago recognised that portraying Australia through a ‘colonial mindset’, as implied in the Act, was not enough. As the nation matured and took its place in the Asia-Pacific region, so too did the ABC evolve its approach to engaging respectfully with its international neighbours.

Over several decades the ABC’s international service has built an enviable reputation in Asia and the Pacific as a trusted provider of quality, independent public media. Radio Australia, launched in 1939 as ‘Australia Calling’, grew into a world-renowned institution, and an international TV service broadcasting to 50 countries was added in 1993, with online services following a few years later. Through its International Development arm (ABCID), the ABC has also fostered enduring relationships, especially in the Pacific where it has been highly valued as the main provider of support for local public interest media, including the building of effective media infrastructure and the provision of emergency information services.

In 2013 this expertise was harnessed by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT). Concerned about growing political instability in the region, DFAT saw a value in media ‘soft power’ as an effective strategy in influencing affairs in the region and awarded a $223 million, ten-year contract to the ABC to expand its broadcasting and online content service for Asia and the Pacific.

The decision was applauded by consumers, broadcasting professionals and heads of government, particularly in the Pacific.

Then inexplicably, less than a year later, the newly-elected Abbott government decided the DFAT allocation was a waste of money. There was a view in the Coalition cabinet, reportedly, that there was no need for a strong Australian voice in the region and that if people wanted international coverage they could go to the BBC or CNN. Perhaps the cut was also motivated by an ideological preference for privatisation and, as many believe, by the fact that the previous Labor government had awarded the contract to the ABC over a rival Sky News bid, in controversial circumstances.  

Whatever the reason, the lack of strategic vision is breathtaking. It’s ironically also out-of-kilter with that of Liberal Party founding father Robert Menzies, who well before the outbreak of World War II said, ‘I have become convinced that, in the Pacific, Australia must see herself as a principal, providing herself with her own information and maintaining her own diplomatic contact with foreign powers.’

Australia’s faltering voice

So it was, that with the stroke of a pen, the remaining $196.8 million of the DFAT contract with the ABC to operate the Australia Network television service into Asia and the Pacific was axed. 

Some 80 broadcasters and correspondents posted throughout the region were made redundant (more than half the staff). To save at least some of its television service the ABC was forced to gut much of Radio Australia. Later, services in the Pacific nations were also closed down. In no small measure, this signalled to our Pacific neighbours that Australia was abandoning them. 

Consequently, the way was opened for other nations to fill the gap, including those that hold very different views to our own on issues such as the importance of a free and independent media, open democracy and human rights. This is already being seen in both Asia and the Pacific region, where China took control of Radio Australia’s former shortwave frequencies and its Xinhua News Agency and other government-related entities are rapidly expanding and advocating their state-controlled media model with negative consequences for media freedom, as documented in the Reporters Without Borders’ Media Freedom Index

As well, propaganda and misinformation are widespread through multiple means of mass and targeted communication via the many global social media and online outlets (including the FAANGs – Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google).  

Now – with quality media across Asia and the Pacific facing very serious challenges to their ability to play their ‘fourth estate’ role – the counter-balance of a trusted, reliable and independent public media source of news, information, entertainment and specialist programming has never been more important to the security of both Australia and our near neighbours.

It is a credit to the ABC that, even within the constraints of insufficient funding, it has managed to maintain an innovative presence in the region (albeit reduced) through ABC Radio Australia, the ABC Australia television network and multimedia platforms, and that its development work has continued to be of high quality and includes considerable media and emergency broadcast training throughout the Pacific.

At present, as outlined here by ABC International’s head, Claire Gorman, the ABC spends $11 million per year of Commonwealth funds on its international services. For that modest sum it provides 24-hour-a-day television to 40 countries in the Indo-Pacific, 24-hour-a-day FM radio in Timor-Leste, PNG, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, and a host of digital-mobile and online services. Content of these services is of high quality and includes some programs made specifically for audiences in the Pacific as well as education and children’s programs. Programming on the ABC networks has for many years also showcased work from all parts of the Australian media industry. On ABC Australia, this encompasses programs from the commercial TV networks, independent producers, SBS and NITV (the national Indigenous network). Among programs currently in the ABC international schedule are Network Seven’s AFL coverage and Home and Away, Nine Network’s Outback Vet and Paramedics, and SBS-NITV’s Ernie Dingo’s Going Places travel program. There are also commercial children’s programs such as the Nine Brain Buzz and Imagination Train. And negotiations are currently underway for additional prominent dramas series.

Map of ABC Indo-Pacific reach.

It’s exceptional value for money. But the ABC would like to do more, if it had the funds – a bespoke weekly pan-regional TV news and current affairs program, for example, to complement the existing three hours of regional news and current affairs coverage every weekday on Radio Australia.  

Ideology and the wasted years

Belatedly, a few months after Scott Morrison rose to the prime ministership, the government came around to recognising the ‘soft power’ importance of an Australian media voice in the region. 

So, did the government do the sensible thing and refinance the one organisation with the requisite experience and expertise?

Well, no. 

Instead, in January 2019 – five years after scrapping the ABC-DFAT contract – the federal government announced it would provide AU$17.1 million to Free TV Australia (the peak body representing commercial free-to-air broadcasters) to send 1,000 hours per year of existing programs to Pacific broadcasters, for three years. This equates to less than six weeks of programming each year, and it specifically rules out content produced by the ABC, SBS or NITV as they are not members of Free TV. 

The deal was pitched as building on the government’s Pacific Step-Up initiatives, ‘strengthening links between Australians and people across the Pacific’, and was a joint project across three ministries – Communications, Foreign Affairs, and International Development and the Pacific.

At this point the story drops into high farce. 

Bridget Fair, chief executive of Free TV Australia, greeted the news with little if any enthusiasm, telling Guardian Australia’s Amanda Meade that the industry had been approached by the government, the funding wasn’t something they had ‘sought out’, and discussions were ‘embryonic’:

‘I don’t think there’s any benefit to the industry in providing the content to the Pacific,’ Fair told Meade. ‘No commercial networks are building partnerships in the Pacific. We’ve been approached by the PM and we are more than happy to help out.’

She also said the networks would have to survey the Pacific nations to find out what type of Australian content the local broadcasters would like, and they were waiting for the government to provide more detail before embarking on doing that.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison surprised the TV industry when he announced $17.1 million funding to Free TV Australia while visiting Fiji and Vanuatu in 2019. 

Never mind that Pacific stakeholders and leaders had recently made submissions to an Australian government review of broadcasting services in Asia Pacific. Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Charlot Salwai Tabismas said what they wanted was public interest journalism (and Australian-run shortwave radio, especially for emergency services information in remote areas without access to modern digital media). The review’s report was not available till later in the year.

It was hardly surprising that it took more than a year for Free TV Australia to roll out its first catalogue, under the ‘PacificAus TV’ banner. Like the ABC Australia service, the commercial operator offers programming free-of-charge. 

The ‘soft power’ value of setting up a new organisation to send commercial programs made for a comparatively wealthy, Australian audience to developing countries is hard to fathom, especially when the ABC service already incorporated such programs in its broader output and offers program blocks to other broadcasters.    

While the government dilly-dallied, other groups were becoming concerned about Australia’s lack of appropriate media presence in the region.

Philanthropist Judith Neilson notably established the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas (JNI) in 2018, committing $100 million ‘to improve the quality of journalism that informs public debate’. A special focus on supporting more reporting from Asia and our region, as well as providing opportunities for Australian and Asian journalists to collaborate, was cited as a priority. Since then, JNI, run by former journalist, political adviser and corporate executive Mark Ryan, has supported excellent initiatives across a range of issues, both domestic and abroad including the Pacific

Philanthropist Judith Neilson has committed $100 million to improve the quality of journalism that informs public debate, with a focus on our region.

Interestingly, Free TV Australia’s CEO Bridget Fair is a director on the JNI Board, so too are former ABC Chair Jim Spigelman AC QC, former ABC Director of News and Head of Asia Pacific News Kate Torney and The Australian newspaper’s Editor-at-Large Paul Kelly.

So, can a government-funded Free TV Australia provide the nation’s strategic media needs in Asia and the Pacific? Could it do so with an informal or formal alliance with another organisation, such as JNI?

The simple answer is no. And not just because the national broadcaster is so obviously best equipped to serve the national strategic interest.

The fact is that current legislation decrees that the ABC is the only organisation that the Commonwealth can fund for the purpose of international broadcasting.

This directive is contained in section 31AA of the ABC Act, which clearly states that the ABC or prescribed companies (as defined in s25A) are to be: ‘the only providers of Commonwealth-funded international broadcasting services’.

Consequently, Free TV Australia’s ‘PacificAus TV’ is not a broadcaster. It simply provides content to existing Pacific broadcasters, free-of-charge, for use in their schedules. And that raises the question of why this couldn’t simply have been done through the existing ABC International service?

In contrast to PacificAus TV, the public broadcaster’s ABC Australia is a full-schedule stand-alone TV channel that is downlinked by about 100 multi service operators – FTA (free-to-air), cable, satellite TV, and OTT (over-the-top, i.e. direct to viewers via the internet) across the Indo Pacific region. It alsoprovides a content block service whereby a third-party channel can take two or more programs from ABC Australia to fit into their own schedule, free-of-charge. 

In terms of promoting ‘brand Australia’ and the nation’s relationships in the Pacific, ABC Australia as a defined network also has a strong advantage through station ID’s, cross-promotions on the various programs it creates and through its strong digital reach. PacificAus TV, as only a program supplier (or distributor), is a step removed from audiences and has no such network or digital capacity to directly reach them.

So, even on this most commercial of criteria, ABC Australia provides more bang for buck.

A simple solution 

There now seems to be little or no argument that Australia must firmly re-establish its regional media voice, especially in the Pacific. 

The challenges of doing this effectively are complex. Over the last few years, reviews and inquiries have been launched, reams of submissions and reports have been written. In the process, precious time is being lost.

It might be argued, too, that time and money have been wasted. As part of its agreement with the government, the Free TV Australia entity PacificAus TV has conducted a scoping study across 7 of the 14 Pacific nations (and produced an ‘In Confidence’ report which, although funded by the taxpayer, is not publicly available). 

But why start from scratch?

The ABC already has experience, expertise and a breadth of services (including news, education and development assistance) unmatched by any other media organisation. It has maintained a good relationship with DFAT. And it can scale up and do what’s needed now. 

Moreover, it has long included the provision of programs from Australia’s commercial networks to the Pacific, both directly through its own ABC Australia TV network and in packages supplied to partner broadcasters – and still does. Expanding this aspect of program provision through the existing framework would surely be more cost-effective than setting up a whole new operation.  

Questions have also been raised about the wisdom of outsourcing a large chunk of Australia’s ‘soft power’ media efforts to a commercial entity at all. 

The ABC is an obvious and simple solution for achieving our national strategic objectives in the Pacific in keeping with the principles suggested by the Australia Asia Pacific Media Initiative (AAPMI), a not-for-profit coalition of respected industry professionals with close ties throughout the region. AAPMI recommends a much more substantial multi-platform government-funded media presence in the region – one that harnesses partnerships with regional media, and with Australia’s own diaspora talent to ensure Australia is talking ‘with’ and not ‘to’ our neighbours, and bringing that conversation into Australian homes. Options proposed by AAPMI range from $35 million to $70 million per year, which is well under the spend of comparable OECD nations. Just how much the government is prepared to commit remains to be seen.

The great folly in all of this is that if the DFAT allocation to the ABC had not been cut in 2014, Australia would have already expanded rather than contracted its reach, influence and footprint in the Pacific. And there’d still be another couple of years to go on the contract!

With all nations in our region now facing complex geopolitical challenges (potentially as great as at any time since World War II), there’s no time to waste. A significant increase in federal government funding to the ABC to support its comprehensive international service is a national imperative.

Helen Grasswill is a Walkley, Logies and Human Rights award-winning journalist. She is a co-founder and deputy chair of ABC Alumni.


WHAT THE ALUMNI IS DOING

Since its inception, ABC Alumni has campaigned for a strong ABC International service, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. We have engaged in a variety of activities, including contributing submissions to government inquiries which you can see here

In our international activities, the Alumni draws significantly on the expertise of AAPMI (Australia Asia Pacific Media Initiative), a not-for-profit group of respected industry professionals who work closely with governments, broadcasters and communities throughout the region in the interests of increasing Australia’s broadcast services, online activities and co-operative media development partnerships with our near neighbours. 

However, where AAPMI promotes principles for engagement and as such is non-aligned to any particular broadcaster, the Alumni is committed to the continuation and expansion of ABC services. 

The Alumni’s International Co-ordinator, Vivien Altman, is currently working on a strategy for our future campaigning in this area and would like to hear from anyone who would like to contribute. Please contact Viv here.


LINKS TO

ABC International today – Claire M Gorman

Facing a World in Disarray – Geoff Heriot

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